Scottish Ensemble - Britten - Gramophone

With just a dozen players, the Scottish Ensemble makes a tight-knit group. Everywhere on this disc there is playing of impressive unanimity of purpose, as one might expect from a small ensemble of highly-skilled musicians. A spark of virtuosity is essential for the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and here the variations flash past like a series of Paganini encores - the 'Romance' keenly inflected, the 'Moto perpetuo' driven by high-tensile energy, the rhythms of the 'Fugue' etched by the players' unanimous attack. There is no spare fat on the sound, nowhere to hide for laggards, but not a great deal of warmth either. As the soloist in the two song-cycles, Toby Spence is a good match for such a lean and focused group. Notable engagements in his operatic career to date have included a winning David in Die Meistersinger in Brussels and Calisis in Rameau's Les Boréades in Paris - both portrayals that were buoyant, bright-eyed, eager to seize one's attention, and his performances of the two Britten works on this disc follow recognisably in the same mould. Spence and the Scottish Ensemble are on the same wavelength in Les Illuminations, focusing on precision of detail to the point where the music positively glitters. If a suspicion of shallowness looms, their agility and intelligence generally offer swift compensation. Unfortunately, the performance of the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings is less successful. Spence's voice sometimes sounds hard pressed here, and the performance only realises its full potential at the most delicate moments - try the dying close of the 'Pastoral' or Tennyson's mention of the 'horns of Elfland' - and in the strong playing of Martin Owen, the horn soloist. A fresh tenor voice is always welcome in Britten, but this disc is not quite enough to disturb existing recommendations.

02 May 2005